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A Martial Artist’s Guide to Hip Health: Know What Damages Them, How to Strengthen Them!

Martial arts training can place more stress on the hips than any other sport. Therefore, it’s crucial that all practitioners familiarize themselves with the most common types of hip injuries, as well as the causes, treatments and, most important, strategies for preventing them. Doing so not only will enhance your physical performance in the short term but also will ensure a healthy martial arts career that spans decades.

Dr. Robert Klapper, the clinical chief of orthopedic surgery at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, is an innovator in the field of joint care. The author of a book titled Heal Your Hips: How to Prevent Hip Surgery, he’s patented many new surgical instruments designed to perform hip arthroscopy and has successfully treated celebrity athletes such as basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and former middleweight karate champion Chuck Norris.

“The martial arts are the No. 1 cause of injuries to the knee and hip, particularly amongst older athletes such as those in their 30s and 40s,” Klapper says. “I am seeing an epidemic of hip replacements, especially in those over 50.” He identifies the roundhouse kick as the most common culprit.

Photo by Peter Lueders

Those problems, along with chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, are caused by the dislocation of the labrum, a crucial tissue within the joint capsule that’s housed in the pelvic bone. Attached to the capsule and labrum, which are closely tied to the meniscus in the joint, are the large muscles of the thigh and hip.

“When a person executes these [kicking] movements, particularly with great force, the labrum can be shifted or pulled out of place within the capsule if he does not possess a high level of muscular strength [and] flexibility or if he performs the movement incorrectly,” Klapper says. “This is the single greatest cause of martial arts hip injuries.”

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Recognizing the signs of injury is crucial, Klapper says. “Athletes come to me when they are having pain in or around their hips and point to one of three areas: their groin, their side hip area (the pocket) or their buttock. Groin pain means damage to the hip, the pocket means it is bursitis or tendonitis, and the buttock indicates the injury is to the lower spine.”

He recommends that anyone who experiences pain or soreness in that area immediately consult a physician. “Athletes wait too long to seek help for a potential injury because of the no-pain-no-gain ethic of some martial arts,” he says. “Successfully treating your body is about listening to it on a daily basis, not waiting for it to shout.”

Photo by Robert Reiff

Perhaps more important than recognizing the symptoms is implementing a plan of action that will enable you to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Klapper endorses the following strategies:

•     Control your weight and body-fat levels.

•     Maintain appropriate strength and flexibility for your activities.

•     Avoid running and other hard, repetitive-impact movements.

•     Engage in balance training such as tai chi chuan, especially if you’re older.

•     Take a vitamin C supplement because it’s the main antioxidant responsible for joint health.

•     Try recumbent biking and water workouts to improve your conditioning.

“Water workouts are of particular benefit not only in preventing hip injuries but in treating them, as well,” Klapper says. “Warm water, up to about navel height, affords an opportunity for your joints to be almost weightless, and it provides many unique angles and loads of resistance.”

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Finally, consider how well your art matches your physiology. “If you have a joint and bone structure that is not well-suited to the sport, the joints will begin to deteriorate much sooner and at a greater rate,” Klapper warns. If that’s the case, you may want to switch to a gentler style.

Pat Pollock is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, personal trainer and Thai-boxing instructor.

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